the Fire Online
by Steve Silberman
Folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie is no stranger to high tech.
In the late '60s, she used a Buchla synthesizer to record the first ever
all-electronic vocal album, Illuminations. Not that itgot much notice. "People were more in love with the Pocahontas-with-a-guitar image," she says.
Now, Sainte-Marie is using the Net and CD-ROMs to change the ways that
kids are taught about the histories and the lives of Native Americans.
The Cradleboard Teaching Project matches up students in native tribal
schools with non-native students, delivering curriculum that challenges
kids' understanding of who Indians are, and most important, allows native
and non-native teenagers to get to know one another online and off.
The result, says Sainte-Marie, is non-native kids who grow beyond cowboys-and-Indians
stereotypes, and native kids who learn higher self-esteem.
coupling the chat sessions with structured teaching materials in print,
on the Web, on video, and on CD-ROM, kids learn tribal history as they
become more comfortable with one another. The project received a crucial
boost two years ago, when the Kellogg Foundation came through with a grant
of US$1.5 million. Currently in use in 33 classes nationwide, the Cradleboard
Project is expanding rapidly,Sainte-Marie says.
The non-native kids who go through the program are often surprised to
learn how badly native peoples have been treated.
Fourteen-year-old Emory Griffin-Noyes, from Kula High in Hawaii, says
that the more the kids from the Rocky Boy tribal school in Montana told
him about their culture, "the more I wondered about my own culture."
"[Native people] were just pushed around, and on the reservation,
they're being ignored," he says. "There's such poverty. My heart
cried out for them. We can't learn that from books. We're getting it directly
from the source."
As Deva Grear at Kula learned more about the lives of the Cree and Chippewa
kids at Rocky Boy, she started looking at the native Hawaiians in her
own area differently. "Pretty much the same things that happened
to the native people," she observes, "happened to them."
Talking online, the students say, is a process of discovering both differences
and similarity. Griffin-Noyes was excited to find out that his Native
American peers share his passion for dirt-biking, and Grear says that
learning that the kids at Rocky Boy listen to drumming tapes on their
Walkmans and still attend traditional powwows was "really cool."
Susan Gayle, teacher and coordinator of the Rocky Boy Cradleboard site,
says some of her own preconceptions were challenged by partnering with
the kids at Kula.
"The issues of Hawaiian sovereignty that they're dealing with parallels
questions about tribal self-governance" on the reservation where
she lives, she says.
The real-time interaction made possible by the Net was crucial to the
learning process, she believes. "If they had been composing letters
and mailing them, it would have been more of a formal writing exercise,
and they would have put it off."
The seed of the Cradleboard Project was planted in 1983,when a teacher
friend of Sainte-Marie's told her she couldn't bring herself to teach
the standard lesson plan about Indians with a native kid in her class.
Sainte-Marie developed less stereotype-ridden teaching materials for her
to use, but until Sainte-Marie hit upon the idea of partnering native
classes with non-native ones, she says, "it was just dead texts about
Bringing kids together offline is also a crucial part of theCradleboard
curriculum. Gayle took a delegation of four kids from the reservation
in Montana to Kauai earlier this year.
"On the way to Kula, we stopped at a fruit stand, and the kids had
never seen many of the fruits before," she says. "But then when
we drove up to the school, the kids saw a basketball court. The first
thing all the kids did was grab a basketball and start playing. It was
a really good game."
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